Thursday, November 26, 2015

Art vs. Entertainment - Are Let's Plays an Art Form?

To make a truly interesting Let's Play isn't that easy.

As you may have noticed, I have a very broad definition of art. For me, art includes not only the classical forms like painting, sculpting, writing, music and so on, but also such things as cooking. With this in mind, it shouldn't be a surprise that for me it's only natural to consider video games an art form.

However, there is a phenomenon that is connected to games, but still is a different genre: Let's Plays, the scourge of YouTube. For those of you who don't know that it is: A Let's Play is a series of videos that shows someone playing and commenting a game. No more, no less. And believe it or not, they're highly popular. Many - if not most - successful YouTubers make Let's Plays.

Now you may wonder why people like them so much. Well, sometimes they just want to peek into a game before buying it, and with all the false promises game publishers often make it's a very valid reason. If it's an older game people might watch it for nostalgia. And there are also people who enjoy Let's Plays for what they are, being entertained by the player's reactions and comments.

Let's Plays are easy to make and are more popular than videos that are supposed to be art in a classical sense: short films, animation and so on. As far as I'm concerned, it's hurtful for many artists that something like Let's Plays gets more recognition than their difficult, time-consuming and expensive projects. They truly have every reason to feel that way. However, I wouldn't dedicate a whole blog post to Let's Plays if I believed that everything is clear about this situation. In fact, I think that on a more abstract level the argument about Let's Plays is a very old discussion.

What is the relationship between entertainment and art in general? This question is linked to the question whether entertainment is art. Sure art often turns out to be entertaining, but there are also people who can just ... entertain others. You can see it with Let's Plays: Being a passionate watcher of Let's Plays myself, I can say that not all of them are worth watching, and many are simply horrible. It mostly depends on the Let's Player's personality. On the language he or she uses. Their voice. Education. Their talent to say interesting and funny things spontaneously. And also their ability to know when to speak, how fast to speak and when to just shut up. To make a truly interesting Let's Play isn't that easy.

Let's Plays are a very young genre, but if I'm honest, they remind me a bit of artistic improvisation. Of musicians just making up music on the spot. Actors playing a scene using random ideas from their audience. Poets making poems out of words and themes named by the audience within seconds. - Can such kinds of virtuosity be considered art?

During the Romantic era this question was subject of a serious debate. Sure artistic improvisation is impressive, yet it's impressive not because of the quality of the result, but because of the act itself, the process of creating something on the spot. Not the artwork is admired but the stunt.

There is also another complicated aspect linked to this matter: If the performer is gifted with the ability to make up something spontaneously these stunts that don't focus on quality and expression are nothing else than cheap mass production and an easier way to make money than classical art. - At least this is how the artists of Romanticism felt.

Whether improvisation can be classified as art depends on how you define the latter. If we use the Romantic definition of art as the result of a metaphysical process which is about originality, longing and sorrow, then, sure, improvisation isn't art. Yet why limit ourselves with this narrow definition? Improvisation isn't always shallow - on the contrary, many of my best ideas came to me while I was improvising, just feeling like writing or painting, sitting down and starting with only a very vague plan. And I heard from other writers and artists that they've experienced the same. I even believe that the state when the process of making art is one flow, the state of "inspiration" which was so important to the artists of Romanticism, is a state of improvisation, since when "inspired" an artist has many great ideas and implements them immediately. Furthermore, art requires skill and talent; and what is the ability to improvise other than - well, skill and talent? A different kind of skill and talent, but it's still skill and talent.

Let's Plays remind me of artistic improvisation, because a good Let's Player has to react spontaneously in an entertaining way. Some Let's Players can't do that at all and are just plain annoying. Others are boring in the beginning, but they become more entertaining with time. And there are also those who entertain involuntarily because their natural reactions are funny. I've never made a Let's Play myself, but since one can train to be a good Let's Player, since one has to talk when one wouldn't talk naturally ... Let's Plays - good Let's Plays - are, in a way, a spontaneous acting performance. Or rather: some weird combination of natural reactions and acting performance.

So are Let's Plays art? A few of them maybe. If there is something original and unique to them - why not? Right now I don't think I can give a clear "yes" or "no", though. Yet I believe that this question - no matter how silly it may sound - deserves some attention.

And this is where I need your help: Do you think Let's Plays can be classified as a new art genre? Do you think that to just entertain people with talk is art? Do you feel like flaying me alive for even thinking that Let's Plays could be art? Do you have any ideas how I should approach this question if I continue thinking about it?

Please let me know in a comment and share this article if you liked it!

Feael Silmarien

PS: The game screenshot on the picture is from the game Dinosaur Race: Shore by National Geographic.

Weintraub, Wiktor: The Problem of Improvisation in Romantic Literature, Comparative Literature 16,2 (1964), pp. 119-137.


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